The historical literature of American conservatism is at a crossroads. Over the past two decades it has been one of the most dynamic subfields in American history, the subject of dozens of journal articles, books, and dissertations. In contrast to the many polemical works on conservatism that populate bookstores, this body of scholarship is wide-ranging, ecumenical, and grounded in serious archival research. The catalogs of major university and commercial presses from the past few years reveal titles on subjects ranging from libertarianism to the southern agrarians to the development of Christian conservatism. Recent meetings of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and the American Historical Association have seen panels on the intellectual history of conservatism, teaching the Right, the Right in the 1960s, military history and conservatism, and the conservative movement in the 1970s. The 2010 meeting of the OAH even featured a metapanel on the expansion of the subfield: “How Should Historians Study Conservatism Now That Studying the Right Is Trendy?” In 1994 Alan Brinkley wrote an oft-cited essay for a forum published in the American Historical Review arguing that historians had ignored conservatism to the point that it was an “orphan” of American political history. Today, instead of decrying the absence of scholarship on conservatism, historians might be forgiven for asking whether there is anything left to study in the history of the Right.1
The answer is yes. The new work on conservatism has illuminated the history of a powerful and diverse political movement that organized throughout the postwar era alongside other social movements that received much more attention. Written during a time when conservatism often seemed to be the dominant force in American politics, this new scholarship has reversed the earlier vision of the Right as a marginal part of American life. The literature has described a range of different constituencies for the conservative movement, from aggrieved working-class white people living in cities such as Boston to prosperous sun belt suburbanites. It has explored a variety of different reasons for the growing power of the Right, ranging from anticommunism to civil rights opposition to the reaction against labor unions to discomfort with changing sexual norms. The questions that this new work on the conservative movement raises should be of great concern to any scholar working in twentieth-century American history and to anyone who cares about contemporary American politics. In the early 1990s it was still possible to see the story of the twentieth century in terms of the triumph and expansion of liberalism, from the New Deal through the civil rights movement, feminism, the gay rights movement, and environmentalism. Today, most historians accept that significant parts of the American population always dissented from the liberalism of the mid-twentieth century, and that the country's rightward turn after 1980 had been building throughout the postwar period. In our survey classes on postwar America we now talk as much about the decline of liberalism as we do about its rise.2
With this work done, the field has arrived at a new maturity. As a result, we now have the opportunity to move beyond the closely focused studies of movement history that have dominated the scholarship thus far and to reconsider our ideas about the relationship of the Right to the broader trends of American political history. While we now know a great deal more than we once did about the internal history of the conservative movement, we are just beginning to rethink the broad sweep of the twentieth century in light of what we have learned. This essay provides an overview of the recent developments in the scholarship on American conservatism, suggests a few of the lessons this growing literature offers about the history of America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and highlights some of the important questions that remain.
The past two decades have been marked not only by the growth of scholarly literature on conservatism but also by the publication of many books by conservative activists seeking to tell the story of their movement. Theirs were generally heroic narratives of committed activists and farsighted intellectuals overcoming overwhelming odds in a struggle against liberal consensus to realize political victory in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. There are also many works of journalism and many polemical pieces from the Left that address the same questions, albeit much more skeptically: Why have conservatives dominated American politics since the 1980s? Where did the conservative movement come from?3
This article will not focus on these popular works, even though their interpretations borrow from and have at times influenced those of scholarly historians. Instead, the emphasis here will be on the spectrum of reconsiderations that has emerged among historians, which will ultimately shape the way the story is told in the public arena.
Political history is always written in response to the demands of the present, but there are few fields for which this is more clearly the case than the scholarship of conservatism. Historians began to turn their attention to writing about the postwar Right in the 1980s, motivated by a desire to explain why the social movements of the 1960s had suddenly been eclipsed by a conservative politics that only a few years before had been deemed too radical and too extreme to succeed. For many liberal and leftist historians, Ronald Reagan's political popularity seemed an alarming mystery. After Barry Goldwater's resounding loss in the 1964 presidential election, most commentators had believed that his brand of conservatism was dead. Yet sixteen years later, it had been revived. How did this happen?
The historiography of modern America could not shed light on the conservative shift. As Alan Brinkley observed in his 1994 article, progressive historians in the early twentieth century had denounced the efforts of wealthy elites who sought to prevent democratic economic and social reforms. But that observation did not capture the populist dimension of modern conservatism. Scholars associated with the New Left, meanwhile, had argued that progressivism and the New Deal had been so shaped by business interests that liberalism itself was a conservative political force. They did not, however, write about the Right as a distinct, specific political mobilization, in part because from the vantage point of the 1960s it seemed so clearly in decline.4
The most influential interpretations of the Right, therefore, both within the academy and in the wider political culture, remained the psychological ones advanced by the consensus historians of the 1950s. According to Richard Hofstadter, the “pseudo-conservatives” who joined the John Birch Society and voted for Barry Goldwater were motivated by a fierce anxiety about their position in the prosperous, mobile consumer society of the postwar period. Their rigid, harsh, and morally absolutist politics was driven by their insecurity and resentment, and especially by fear of their declining status within American society. These midcentury scholars and cultural critics saw the “pseudo-conservative revolt” as the province of fanatics and cranks rather than of serious politicians.5
For historians addressing the subject of conservatism in the 1980s, the critical problem was developing an analysis that could account for the revival of the Right during that decade and the previous one. These scholars rejected the dismissive and condescending attitudes of the consensus historians, seeking to write about conservatism with a measure of sympathy, although few of them actually identified as conservatives themselves. But in other ways they borrowed from the insights of the consensus thinkers, especially in their emphasis on conservatism as a species of populism. These first accounts of the rise of the Right sought to account for its support among white working-class voters, once thought to be the stalwart supporters of liberalism. In this narrative, the widespread support that liberalism had once enjoyed foundered in the late 1960s in response to the radicalism of the New Left. The rise of black power, the growing militancy of the antiwar movement, and the challenges of feminism and gay rights all provoked a sharp backlash from the mainstream of American society. The result was a shift to the right.
These scholars of backlash politics differed in the relative weight that they assigned to its coordination from above. Some told a top-down story in which national politicians from George Wallace to Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich used thinly coded racial rhetoric to appeal to white voters who had been alienated by black radicalism and by the victories of the civil rights movement more generally. In this narrative, conservative movement leaders played on racial prejudice to win a broad popular following for economic policies promoting deregulation and lower taxes. What began in the South as resistance to desegregation moved to the North and the rest of the country as opposition to busing, integration of neighborhoods, and ultimately to the welfare state itself, which was depicted as benefiting primarily people of color. Other historians focused less on the ways that national politicians crafted a message around “race, rights and taxes” and more on the grassroots emergence of what Ronald P. Formisano called “reactionary populism,” a fierce defense of racial privilege that was motivated by deep fears about the deterioration of white working-class institutions—such as local schools—during a time of economic decline. From either perspective, the key developments in the rise of conservatism were the crumbling of the old New Deal electoral coalition, the fragmenting of the Democratic party around racial politics, and the reaction against 1960s radicalism.6
Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, as it became clear that conservative success was no electoral accident, a distinctive new perspective on the rise of the conservative movement began to take hold. Instead of focusing on the Reagan Democrats and backlash voters of the late 1960s and 1970s, the new historiography took a longer view, emphasizing the growing strength of the conservative mobilization in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The victories of Reagan and other conservative politicians in the 1970s and 1980s were possible because conservative institutions, networks, and ideas had been developing for decades. Recognizing the longevity of the movement cut against the idea of a sudden backlash. This work also emerged out of debates over the 1960s, especially as a new, younger generation of scholars who had not lived through the decade began to tell its story. Unlike the older generation, they were struck by the conservative movement as a grassroots mobilization with parallels to the movements of the Left during those years.7
These new histories of the Right focused on suburbanites of the sun belt states—especially the upper South and southern California—as the catalysts of the conservative shift, rather than the working-class whites of the rust belt and the Northeast or the lower-class whites of Mississippi and Alabama. Reagan, not George Wallace, was their leader. Instead of interpreting conservatism as the politics of despair and working-class reaction, these scholars saw it as a forward-looking, sophisticated, and politically creative force in American life. This was so even though most historians working in the field were not self-defined conservatives; often it seemed they were writing about the Right to know their opponents better. This effort to understand the political strategies, ideas, and organizations of the conservative movement over the whole sweep of the postwar years has defined the main themes of the literature in the years since Brinkley wrote his article calling for the revival of scholarly interest in conservatism.
One of the dilemmas of writing about conservatism might seem, at first glance, to be the problem of definition. What is conservatism? Is it a political ideology, a social movement, a general philosophical stance toward the world? As many people have observed, conservative thought contains elements that might seem inconsistent on the surface, most notably its simultaneous embrace of the free market and its professed commitment to the maintenance of tradition. These ideological tensions are mirrored in the diverse constituencies of the Right. How have southern segregationists and northern businessmen, or libertarians and Christian fundamentalists, managed to make common political cause? There are also questions about the political boundaries of conservatism. Does the movement include the “extremists” of the John Birch Society and the terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan alongside the mainstream politicians of the Republican party? Are there philosophical or political connections that link these different groups? Should historians exploring conservatism write about committed activists or swing voters to understand the reasons for its electoral successes? How to account for conservative Democrats or “neoliberals”? Who are the true conservatives, and what do they really believe?
Historians writing about conservatism have generally dealt with these problems of definition by agreeing, tacitly if not always explicitly, on a particular definition of conservatism. Generally, scholars of the Right have understood conservatism as a social and political movement that gained momentum during the post–World War II period. It began among a small number of committed activists and intellectuals, and ultimately managed to win a mass following and a great deal of influence over the Republican party. While its ideology (like all political world views) was not systematic or logically coherent on every count, its central concerns included anticommunism, a laissez-faire approach to economics, opposition to the civil rights movement, and commitment to traditional sexual norms. Earlier scholars had depicted the rightward movement of American politics as an angry reaction epitomized by the outbursts of the 1970s. The more recent body of work has challenged the idea of a backlash, instead emphasizing the extent to which conservatives organized a sustained, long-term attempt to realize their particular vision of American society.
This new literature on the conservative movement took shape at the same moment that the discipline of political history broadened its focus to incorporate greater attention to culture, grassroots historical actors, and formal legislative battles.8 It is not surprising, therefore, that much of the scholarly literature on conservatism has emphasized the role of political organizations and activist groups in building a network of people devoted to achieving a broad rollback of liberalism. Historians such as John A. Andrew III, Jonathan Schoenwald, and Gregory L. Schneider have described the roles of organizations such as Young Americans for Freedom and the John Birch Society in training the early generations of conservative activists. They have sought to break down the older distinctions between “moderate” and “extreme” conservatives, emphasizing the overlapping concerns and personae that linked the organizations once seen as radical to the more respectable and electorally oriented Right. Moving outside of the grassroots groups and into electoral politics, historians such as Mary C. Brennan and Donald T. Critchlow have emphasized the rightward move of the Republican party and the ways that conservative movement activists were able to exert increasing power within the GOP. Rick Perlstein has reevaluated the career of Barry Goldwater, suggesting that while his 1964 defeat looked like a spectacular failure at the time, it actually helped catalyze a generation of young conservatives. In these accounts, conservatism appears to be a thriving grassroots movement, vibrant and lively at a time when liberalism was becoming a form of top-down politics.9
While these works emphasize the political strategies of the movement in its early years, scholars have also devoted attention to the communities that helped nurture conservatism. Lisa McGirr's study of Orange County, California, is perhaps the most influential of these analyses of the “dynamic social base that propelled the movement and gave it its endurance and strength.” McGirr explicitly rejected the framework of status anxiety and the image of conservatives as irrational or “paranoid.” Instead, she argued that conservatism thrived throughout the 1950s, the 1960s, and into the 1970s among affluent suburbanites whose jobs were closely tied to the Cold War defense industry. Anticommunism, in her view, was able to unify a variety of different political concerns, bringing together antistatists, advocates of a free market, and believers in traditional morality. These anticommunist activists were able to capitalize on the era's discomfort about challenges to sexual norms and the racial hierarchy. Ultimately, they made political alliances with conservative Christian groups.10
Although many of the leaders of the conservative movement were men, McGirr and others have documented the major role played by women in the movement. Here, too, the trend has been toward shifting the focus away from the passionate backlash against feminism in the 1970s to analyze the activism of conservative women throughout the entire postwar period. Earlier work on antifeminism emphasized opposition to the equal rights amendment and struggles over abortion rights, suggesting that these issues became so explosive because they touched on deep understandings of gender that were tantamount to sacred beliefs. Other scholarship, however, has sought to connect the antifeminism of the 1970s to a broader political framework to suggest that ideas about gender shaped visions of the state, economic regulation, anticommunism, and the proper role of government. Both McGirr and Michelle Nickerson have considered the central role women played in developing anticommunist activism in southern California. Critchlow's work on Phyllis Schlafly places her campaign against the equal rights amendment in a postwar tradition of grassroots activism by female conservatives, grounded in a “moral republicanism” that linked antipathy to government with a strong belief in traditional values and sexual roles. Catherine E. Rymph has looked at the central role of women in the Republican party since women won the right to vote. In this sense, the rise of conservatism is best seen as a movement that grew out of the grassroots political efforts of people such as the midwestern women who were drawn to Schlafly and the suburban housewives who lived in Orange County.11
The emphasis on political activism and education in the conservative movement has also led scholars to rethink conservative intellectual history. The most influential synthesis of the subject remains George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Tradition since 1945, first published in 1976. Nash sought to counter the condescension of the consensus scholars who assumed that conservatives had no serious intellectual life. He argued that postwar conservatism brought together three powerful and partially contradictory intellectual currents that previously had largely been independent of each other: libertarianism, traditionalism, and anticommunism. Each particular strain of thought had predecessors earlier in the twentieth (and even nineteenth) centuries, but they were joined in their distinctive postwar formulation through the leadership of William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review. The fusion of these different, competing, and not easily reconciled schools of thought led to the creation, Nash argued, of a coherent modern Right.12
There is, as yet, no work of intellectual history that challenges Nash's synthesis, and it is difficult to overstate the impact that it still has on the field. But the recent work on the Right does suggest a subtly different approach, one that moves away from the idea of fusion. As Jennifer Burns has observed, by emphasizing the synthetic coherence of conservatism Nash gave the traditionalist voices greater weight than they deserved. He wrote out of the narrative of modern conservatism thinkers who vigorously rejected religion and tradition—such as Ayn Rand—despite their manifest importance in shaping the Right. By contrast, while there have been important studies that revisit the traditionalist thinkers, much of the recent scholarship (such as Burns's own) has focused on libertarianism as a central preoccupation for conservative activists. Work on the traditionalists—for example, Paul Murphy's study of the southern agrarians and their legacy—has emphasized the ways they represented an alternative path not taken by the conservative movement, with their skepticism about capitalism standing in sharp contrast to the enthusiastic laissez-faire of the Right.13
Part of the reason for the change in perspective has to do with methodology. The new intellectual history of conservatism has focused on treating conservative intellectuals as part of a social movement, looking at how their ideas contributed to activism and vice versa, at the political and institutional context for conservative ideas, and at conservatives’ attempts to build an alternative intellectual infrastructure. Steven M. Teles's examination of the conservative legal movement, for example, brings together intellectual and political history to look at legal scholars who worked with business funders to build the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies and other groups that challenge legal liberalism. Burns's work on Ayn Rand places Rand firmly in the context of the conservative milieu. Historians such as Angus Burgin and S. M. Amadae have moved away from the conservative movement magazines and institutions that were Nash's primary focus to analyze the contributions of academic economists and the theory of rational choice to a broader backlash against Keynesianism and liberalism. There have also been studies of black conservative intellectuals and of multicultural conservatism that pay close attention to the relationship between ideas, activism, and policy. Finally, intellectual historians of conservatism are considering the ways that liberal thinkers responded to conservative ideas. For example, Michael Kimmage's 2009 study of Whittaker Chambers and Lionel Trilling seeks to show how anticommunism transformed liberalism and conservatism in the 1940s and 1950s, anticipating the neoconservative shift of later years, while Justin Vaïsse has written about neoconservatism as a movement that began among disillusioned liberals whose legacy remained evident even as it became entrenched among foreign policy hawks within the Republican party.14
Echoing the new focus of intellectual historians on the free market and libertarian sources of conservative activism, the framework of suburban studies has contributed to a reevaluation of the idea of backlash politics as the crucible of the Right in both the North and the South. Several accounts of white backlash in cities outside of the South—such as Thomas J. Sugrue's on Detroit and Robert O. Self's on Oakland—have emphasized that the racial conflicts that grabbed national headlines in the late 1960s actually had much earlier origins, rooted in white homeowners’ attempts to maintain racially segregated neighborhoods. The implication is that white commitment to civil rights and desegregation was tenuous at best throughout the postwar years; it did not take the radicalism of black power to alienate whites from the struggle for racial justice.15
At the same time, scholars focusing on the South have reframed the story to argue that the suburban sun belt, not the Deep South, was the birthplace of modern conservatism. In this new interpretation, southern politicians did not defend a dying order simply to maintain “local control.” Rather, they sought a pragmatic, flexible conservatism that could find common ground with the rest of the nation. Suburban homeowners living outside of cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, often did resist the integration of their neighborhoods and schools, but they also rejected the open white supremacy of an earlier generation of southerners. Instead, they advocated a homeowners’ philosophy of individual rights, meritocracy, and property ownership. Even Mississippi, Joseph Crespino has argued, should not be parodied as backward: Mississippians in the 1960s saw themselves as active participants in a “conservative counterrevolution” with national reach. The “new suburban history” suggests that homeowners found themselves drawn to the small-government, free-market approach to social policy embodied by the conservative movement. Ironically, postwar federal government support for highways and mass homeownership helped create communities that would ultimately prove deeply hostile to New Deal liberalism. This scholarship on the rise of a rights-based language for fighting racial justice is echoed in new work on the opposition to environmentalism; James Morton Turner has argued that in the 1970s and 1980s, Western antienvironmentalists increasingly rejected a broad reactionary criticism of state power, instead framing their case in the rhetoric of individualism and property ownership. Political developments in the South, in other words, affected the way conservative activists around the country approached the question of state power.16
Some recent scholarship has emphasized the economic dimension of the conservative revolt from a variety of perspectives. Here, too, the implicit comparison is with earlier work that focused on the backlash. Instead of seeing conservatism as a revolt from below that was motivated by the racial and sexual politics of the 1960s, these scholars have focused on the role of businesspeople and the economic elite in building conservative institutions and developing anti-union strategies. Business opposition to labor and liberalism helped generate financial support for many of the movement's institutions and organizations in its early years while business campaigns in defense of market ideas helped shift the terms of public debate. Historians such as Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf and David Witwer have treated the centrality of conservatives’ antilabor ideas during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. My own work has suggested the importance of business support for conservative institutions and initiatives throughout the postwar period. Jefferson Cowie and Tami Friedman have shown that the decline of manufacturing in the North and the Midwest was influenced by political ideology, as companies sought to relocate away from unionized centers and toward the rural, nonunion South (and ultimately over the border to Mexico). A forthcoming collection on labor and the Right edited by Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer examines the ways that opposition to unions became part of postwar conservatism. Meanwhile, Bethany Moreton and Shane Hamilton have started to dissect popular ideas about the market, analyzing the reasons why working-class people—such as rural Wal-Mart employees or long-haul truckers—might come to believe that deregulation served their best interests.17
There has, finally, been increasing attention to the role of religion in the development of conservatism. While religion still receives more lip service than sustained engagement from political historians, the evident importance of conservative churches in the development of grassroots conservatism and the growing role of religion in late twentieth-century American society more generally have made a focus on conservative religious institutions and ideologies crucial to contemporary analysis of the Right. More than in many other fields of political history, scholars of conservatism are seeking to place analysis of religious ideas, debates, and practices at the heart of the story. From one perspective, the central story of the development of the Right since the 1970s is that of the creation of a politicized base of conservative congregations mobilized to support the Republican party. As with the revision of the backlash narrative, new scholarship suggests that the history of the Christian Right can be traced back into the postwar period. Building on the work of historians of religion such as George M. Marsden, Grant Wacker, Joel A. Carpenter, Mark A. Noll, and Mark Silk, scholars of conservatism have argued that the contemporary Christian Right did not emerge simply in response to Roe v. Wade or the various 1970s challenges to social and sexual mores. On the contrary, evangelical Christians had embraced ideas of stewardship and Christian responsibility for the larger society throughout the twentieth century. The explicit politicization of their churches in the 1970s and 1980s was not a sudden response to the upheaval of the late 1960s; it grew out of a longstanding engagement with political life.18
This work on Christian conservatism has been closely tied to scholarship that emphasizes the political economy of the sun belt regions of the country. Much of the recent work rejects the image of fundamentalists as backward, reactionary, or antimodern, and instead depicts many Christian conservatives as upper middle-class people who saw belief in business principles and market ideals as a natural extension of their religious faith. Darren Dochuk suggests that the religious people who migrated from the South to the West in the middle of the twentieth century were committed to building a “moral geography” in their new suburban homes, creating communities that reflected their views about the market and about Christ. Daniel K. Williams has emphasized that the membership of the burgeoning evangelical churches in the postwar years was largely suburban—people who were prospering in the sprawling cities of the New South and Southwest. Bethany Moreton and Dochuk both look at the Christian institutions of higher education (such as Pepperdine University and Harding College) that helped educate a generation of managers for companies such as Wal-Mart. Gender roles, of course, remained one of the major preoccupations of these southern Christians, but they did not see the issue as being at odds with their commitment to free-market ideas or the business world. (Paul Harvey, for example, has suggested that the emphasis of southern Christians on a strict hierarchy between men and women grew out of an older vision of the world as organized according to a rigid racial order; as this open racism became less acceptable, its old adherents continued to profess a world separated by sharp divisions—now between men and women rather than blacks and whites.) For these conservative Christians, there was no tension between believing in Christ and believing in the free market. Their religion reinforced their commitment to small government, local autonomy, and the primacy of business in public life. It should be noted that Protestant congregations are not the only important places to understand the role of religion in the development of conservatism, even though they have received the bulk of historical attention. Patrick Allitt has written about Catholic intellectuals, Benjamin Balint's history of Commentary looks at the evolution of the magazine from an organ of Jewish liberalism to one of neoconservatism, and Neil J. Young's examination of the tenuous coalition built by Catholics, Mormons, and Baptists serves as an important corrective. Even so, much more still must be done to broaden the field of inquiry.19
In this literature, conservative activism appears to emerge from the successful, prosperous heart of the country—not from disaffected or marginal people but from those who are firmly within the American center. The movement has not been driven by populist working-class resentment and anger as much as by the self-confident complacency of the well-to-do and their desire to protect their vision of the good society from the myriad threats they fear that it might face. The scholarship has described a political movement that promotes free-market individualism as well as Christian community. It has analyzed the movement's connection to the long national reaction against African Americans’ struggles for civil rights. The literature has explored the lives and motivations of the movement's committed activists while also seeking to show how their ideas and concerns ultimately came to speak to a wider group of people over time.
Historians of the Right have long been concerned with the question of how conservatives were able to craft a belief system out of dissonant first principles. They have also wondered how to think about the conservative coalition. How did a range of different social groups manage to come together under the umbrella of opposition to communism and liberalism? This work suggests that perhaps these alliances were less difficult than sometimes imagined. If many Christian conservatives, for example, were always committed to small government and the free market, why should it have been difficult for them to find common cause with libertarians or business conservatives? On the other hand, the same suburbanites who wanted lower taxes also believed in the maintenance of traditional family roles. For conservative intellectuals such as Friedrich Hayek, the belief in the market went along with a kind of antirationalism that had close cousins in conservative religious circles. These kinds of connections might help explain why the conservative movement has proved more durable than some on the Left have suggested—why the “conservative crack-up” so often predicted has not occurred.20
At the same time, historians need to keep thinking about the connections between racial and sexual politics and conservative economic ideas. Some work that is critical of the idea of the backlash may come too close to setting up an opposition between cultural and economic politics, when in reality the two can never be fully separated. The work of the historian Nancy K. MacLean and that of the political scientist Joseph Lowndes offer examples of approaches that seek to integrate the narrative of the long backlash against civil rights with the emergence of critiques of the welfare state. MacLean has argued that conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s celebrated an idealized vision of the American South as a bulwark against the centralized power of the federal government. Lowndes suggests that the idea of a “southern strategy” that could join northern businessmen with white southerners has its roots early in the postwar period. Both scholars make the case that in midcentury America, expanding the federal government was easily linked to ideas about racial equality in ways that ultimately tied the struggle to maintain racial divisions to the fight against the welfare state. Historians may be moving beyond a straightforward vision of conservatism as a coalition by looking at the underlying themes and ideas that link seemingly separate parts of the movement. On the one hand, this means seeing the ways that conservatives were able to reconcile what might seem to be contradictory ideas about “tradition” and capitalism. But it also requires thinking anew about how ideas about the economy are connected to those about sexual roles and racial hierarchies.21
There are still many areas in the field of conservatism studies that warrant further attention. Little work has been done on ideas about war, nationalism, and patriotism and the rise of the Right, or on the contributions of veterans’ organizations and the American Legion to conservative organizing. There is a real need for more scholarship on antifeminism and opposition to gay rights, especially since the 1970s, and in particular on the links between cultural politics and the economic Right. The role of mass media in the creation of the Right also has not yet received full attention from historians—especially important given the centrality of conservative talk radio, television programs, and leaders such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to the movement today. We know a lot about the national Republican party, but more work should be done on local party organizations and especially on the conflicts between moderate and conservative Republicans. Despite the large amount of research on racism and the Right, the strong streak of anti-immigrant and nativist sentiment in the conservative movement—which seems especially present today—has not been as well studied.22
Finally, more work is needed on conservatives who are seen as “extremists,” especially the John Birch Society. Because so much of the recent work has been written with the condescending ideas of the consensus historians as a foil, there is a tendency to normalize the political world view of the Right, to treat even its most outlandish and radical ideas with patience. Scholars have, at times, felt the need to make the argument that conservatives are just ordinary citizens who happen to hold ideas that are different from those of liberals or leftists. While this is true, it also seems to be an overly defensive position. Historians who write about the Right should find ways to do so with a sense of the dignity of their subjects, but they should not hesitate to keep an eye out for the bizarre, the unusual, or the unsettling. In some ways, the emerging vision of conservatism as part of the political mainstream fails to capture the emotional tone of the movement—the animating spirit of disappointment and fury that seems to motivate at least some of its participants.
These comments aside, there is no doubt that we have learned a great deal about the history of conservatism as a social and political movement over the past fifteen years, since the calls in the early 1990s to write the history of the Right. We still must think about how to conceptualize that mobilization and how our new understanding of the movement changes the way that we relate the broader narrative of twentieth-century American history.
Scholarship on conservatism flourished during the 1990s and 2000s, decades when the Right seemed to be an ascendant force in American politics. The underlying question motivating the literature was simple: How had conservatives recovered from defeats during the first half of the twentieth century to arrive at the position of preeminence they held by century's end? Today, two years through the presidency of Barack Obama, the position of conservatism is far less clear. The eruption of deep tensions within the Republican party, the revival of aggressive grassroots antistatist politics in the Tea Party movement, and the ambiguous nature of Democratic liberalism in the age of Obama all raise new and more complex questions about the conservative shift of the past thirty years. Fortunately, the field has developed to the point where we can step back and reassess our understanding of the conservative mobilization and ask how this new literature should make us see American history differently. In his 1994 essay, Alan Brinkley suggested that historians’ confidence about the progressive direction of American history had made it impossible for them to understand the reasons for the revival of conservatism, the rebirth of religious fervor, and the reinvigoration of laissez-faire ideas. Does recognizing the importance of conservatism throughout the twentieth century make us see the arc of American history in a new way?23
The most serious problems that historians face today in thinking about the Right have to do with its origins and its legacy. In some ways, they stem from the basic framework of thinking about conservatism as a social and political movement. Is the model of an insurgent movement rising from a small band of faithful supporters to the pinnacle of power the best way to understand the rightward shift of American politics? Did conservatism begin only in the postwar years—how distinctive are its concerns when seen in the broader sweep of American history? Were conservatives effectively able to establish the contemporary political agenda? How should we evaluate the obstacles and failures that conservatives faced? The vast majority of the new histories of conservatism trace its development over the course of the postwar period to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. There are important questions on both sides of this chronology and even about the definition of the timeline itself.
For those who have approached conservatism as a political movement, the point of origin is usually the immediate postwar period or perhaps the New Deal. The idea is that modern conservatism formed in opposition to the dominance of the liberal vision that was born in the Great Depression and World War II. There is no question that the rise of the liberal state, the expansion of labor unions, and the general rejection of pure laissez-faire principles in the wake of the economic collapse of the 1930s transformed the political landscape and placed those who were critical of these developments on the defensive. But historians also have traced some of the most distinctive features of postwar conservatism back to the 1920s and 1930s. Scholarship on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s is suggestive of how the Ku Klux Klan foreshadowed the development of the modern Right. Alan Brinkley and Leo P. Ribuffo wrote about the populist opposition to liberalism in the 1930s, which may have received less attention than it warrants in the recent wave of histories of the Right.24
Now scholars are beginning to suggest that many of the defining features of the postwar Right go back even earlier than the interwar period. For example, Julia Ott has argued that the business campaigns for the market that have been studied in postwar America can be found even before World War I, in the advocacy of the New York Stock Exchange on behalf of free-market ideas and widespread stock ownership. Rosemary Feurer, William Millikan, and Chad Pearson, among others, have looked at employer resistance to unions in the early years of the twentieth century, indicating its deeply politicized nature long before the New Deal. Beverly Gage has written about antiradicalism and anticommunism in the early years of the twentieth century, suggesting that this strain of conservative politics cannot be analyzed only since the Joseph McCarthy era. Kim Nielsen's study of antifeminism during the first Red Scare shows how ideas about gender were bound up with a broader antiradicalism. Allan Lichtman argues that the primary concern of conservatives has been “that pluralistic, cosmopolitan forces threatened America's national identity,” and he traces this fear back to the 1920s. Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore have taken these insights further, suggesting that the postwar era was a “long exception” to the norm of American politics and that liberalism never laid the cultural foundation for an alternative to the conservative individualism that characterized the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as much as it does our own day.25
At the same time, although conservatives saw themselves as antigovernment crusaders, they wielded more political power during the liberal age than historians have fully acknowledged. Beverly Gage, for example, addresses the ways that J. Edgar Hoover's conservative politics shaped the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and she analyzes the significance for the conservative movement of having such a powerful government bureaucrat as an ally. In her work on Wal-Mart, Bethany Moreton touches on Jesse Jones, the evangelical millionaire real estate developer who headed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer's work on local boosters in Phoenix, Arizona, and their use of city government to appeal to industry to relocate to the southwestern city offers another way of thinking about conservative uses of government at the local level. The conservative self-image as principled libertarian should not keep us from seeing the ways that “the state has helped shape American conservatism, and conservatism helped shape the state,” as the political scientists Brian J. Glenn and Steven M. Teles put it.26
What is the significance of recognizing the power of the conservative strain in American politics throughout the twentieth century? For one thing, if conservatism was not newly born in the postwar period—if its intellectual, social, and even some of its organizational lineages can be traced back to the beginnings of the century—it becomes more difficult to see the dominance of postwar liberalism in the same way. The suggestion is that conservative politics and the communities that sustained it always formed a strong counterweight to liberalism. The successes of the modern Right can be attributed, then, to the ways that it tapped into a political tradition that predated the organization of the movement itself. Instead of seeing a conservative movement springing from the ashes of World War II to counter a powerful liberal state, we might see a long tradition with deep historical roots, revitalized at different points in response to various challenges but nonetheless present throughout the century. The postwar period then appears to be less an era of liberal power slowly countered by a resurgent Right, and more an era characterized by contest and struggle all along.
Looking at the prevalence of conservatism throughout the twentieth century may also mean altering our view about its rise to power. Most of the new historiography of conservatism tells its story as one of a grassroots social movement, starting among a small number of loyal supporters and slowly working its way outward to achieve victory and a mass following with Reagan's election in 1980—much as the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, and the labor movement did. But recognizing the longstanding power of conservative ideas and beliefs throughout the century raises the question of whether this is the correct analogy. There were, after all, many members of the political establishment who subscribed to important parts of the conservative program through the middle years of the twentieth century, and there were many business leaders who shared its central faiths even more deeply. Conservative claims about individual rights, the virtues of capitalism, and anticommunism were echoed broadly across the political spectrum. Conservatives exercised a great deal of economic and institutional power throughout the postwar years. In many ways, despite their deeply felt sense of themselves as outsiders on the defensive, they were never the excluded figures they believed themselves to be.
This set of questions about conservatism suggests that its roots in American politics have been stronger throughout the twentieth century than much of the literature to this point suggests. Even so, historians have also started to raise another set of questions that are somewhat at odds with the vision of conservative power. They emphasize the fragility of the movement in its era of apparent victory and focus on the many hindrances that it has encountered.
This perspective has come primarily from historians who are examining the 1970s and 1980s, chronicling the years when conservatives came to power and examining the ways that they governed. Criticizing what some see as the “whiggish” tendency to read conservatism's successes backward through postwar history, this new scholarship suggests that the conservative movement in the 1970s and 1980s, despite its obvious victories, was actually much weaker and less cohesive than historians have generally believed. Its victories in the late 1970s were highly opportunistic. They depended primarily on the crises within liberalism rather than a genuine deepening commitment of the electorate to conservative principles and ideas. The implication is that studying conservatism may miss the point, for the triumphs of the Right can only be understood in tandem with the travails of the years of the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, the energy crisis, and economic recession. Although scholars have treated the conservative movement as the dynamic force, important changes happened within the mainstream of American politics and within liberalism, as Democratic politicians, moderate Republicans, and liberal intellectuals became increasingly sympathetic to economic deregulation and to punitive policies and attitudes regarding crime.27
This focus raises the question of whether at that moment there might have been some deeper shift in American politics, economics, and culture—one that helped frame the context for the successes of the Right but that was not itself determined by the conservative movement. In this narrative, the 1970s and 1980s seem less the period of ascendance for conservatism than a time when something in the entire framework of American politics began to change. In his writing on the 1970s, Jefferson Cowie has suggested that the idea of the working class—and in some ways, the idea of class itself—began to decline at the very moment when the factories of the Midwest rusted over and the divisions between rich and poor began to widen. Theorists of neoliberalism, such as David Harvey, emphasize the failure of Keynesian economic policy and the emergence of a newly aggressive class politics as the result of the economic crises of the decade. Daniel Rodgers has described the 1980s as the “age of fracture,” when the structuralist ideas of society that had dominated intellectual life in the mid-twentieth century began to give way. Narratives that had stressed society, history, and power were replaced by visions that gave primacy to the agency of the individual. The organizational and electoral victories of conservatism do not explain these cultural and intellectual shifts that affected the entire political spectrum and even the very way that politics itself was conceived.28
Even as scholars start to rethink the evolution of liberalism, historians of the 1980s are beginning to ask whether conservatism during the Reagan years was as powerful and coherent as it appeared to be. How did conservatives govern? How did they try to translate their broad philosophical and political beliefs into specific pieces of legislation? Why did they not roll back more of the welfare state than they did? To what extent was the Right successful in remaking public policy and American society? Meg Jacobs and Julian Zelizer have argued that liberalism and the regulatory welfare state remained surprisingly robust in the 1980s and 1990s. Even though certain parts of the conservative project resonated with the broad public, the rollback of government programs that benefited the middle class did not. The legal infrastructure and many of the institutions that had been created during the New Deal and the Great Society eras did not prove so easy to dismantle, nor did the Left disappear during the 1980s. Veterans of the social movements of the 1960s organized in the antinuclear movement, the antiapartheid movement, and joined forces to oppose American foreign policy in Central America. The existence of the gay rights movement provided the base for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) activism and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Feminists continued to organize for reproductive rights and equal access to the workplace. Finally, David T. Courtwright has emphasized that the culture of the country did not become more amenable to conservative values, so traditionalist conservatives found themselves consistently frustrated. In short, conservatives faced significant obstacles as they attempted to achieve their program. Just as the Right had not disappeared during the mid-twentieth century, so too did liberals—and even the Left—help determine the course of events in a time that often seemed dominated by the other side.29
The vision of the 1980s as a moment of sustained conflict rather than as an era when conservatism triumphed means rethinking how historians conceive of conservative governance and policy making during the decade. Where did conservatives win and where did they lose? How did they translate their antistatist movement ideals into government? Zelizer argues that conservatives often had to find ways to advance their ideological project without directly challenging state regulatory structures—getting conservatives appointed to the courts, for example, or staffing bureaucracies such as the National Labor Relations Board with people who were hostile to their basic aims. Nor did they take the state apart; they dramatically expanded government in areas such as defense spending and in the war on drugs. Often this expansion of government has been seen as inconsistent with the movement's libertarian values. For conservatives, however, it may have been consonant with a broader approach to the state, and historians need to learn more about how conservatives were able to reconcile the apparent contradiction. Despite the difficulties that conservatives encountered, American policies did shift to the right during the 1980s and afterward, especially regarding taxes, regulation, welfare, and labor policy. Instead of assuming that success at the ballot box translated easily into changes in policy, however, or that ideology maps neatly onto political change, historians should find ways to think anew about exactly how conservatives sought to achieve their goals once they began to win electoral victories.30
As the chronological frame broadens past 1980, historians will also start to reconsider the trajectory of the conservative movement in the Reagan era and after. On one level, the movement flourished with Reagan in the White House. These years saw the creation of new think tanks, magazines, radio and television programs, political organizations, and the expansion of those that existed already. At the same time, these were also years of fracture and division. Hard-line activists objected to Reagan's meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. Business activists split over trade and tax policies. On the religious Right, some of the alliances formed earlier (for example, between Mormons and Baptists or Protestants and Catholics) came under new pressure as theological disagreements came to the forefront and as activists grew disappointed with the Reagan administration's record on abortion. By the end of the presidency of George W. Bush, many conservative intellectuals were backing away from an unpopular president, complaining that he had increased government spending and that his foreign policy adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan had been failures. These conflicts within the conservative movement have as yet received relatively little attention from historians, but they will surely be assessed in more depth as research moves closer to the present.31
For historians of religious conservatives, the most recent period may be the most important one. The 1980s and 1990s were years of growing mobilization on the Christian Right. This may have been because of the fractures and defeats that the movement faced in these years. Many conservative Christian leaders were often sharply critical of the Reagan administration for not doing more to advance a conservative social agenda, and they also felt acutely embattled during the presidency of Bill Clinton. This sense that even when conservatives won, the religious Right lost may have helped politicize more churches, leading to the deepening of the relationship between religious conservatives and the Republican party. Every victory was accompanied by new frustrations. In this way, the problems that conservatives faced when in power actually became stimuli for the movement to continue to grow.
The most recent literature, then, points in two directions. On the one hand, scholars have argued that conservatism's roots are thought to have been deeper than the studies that focused on the postwar years suggested; on the other, conservatism's legacy appears more conflicted and contingent, less simply triumphant. In a way, this tension is reflected in our current historical moment. The conservative movement today seems embattled and fragmented, even after the 2010 midterm elections and the debt crisis of the summer of 2011. Yet many of the central principles that were once promoted by conservatives alone—especially about economic matters and the need for austerity—seem to have transcended the movement itself and to have become the new common wisdom, so much so that we appear still to be living in the age that began with Reagan's election.
Perhaps to gain a fuller appreciation of what has changed in American politics, it will be necessary to broaden out from our focus on the conservative movement. After all, telling the story of conservatism in the 1980s and 1990s raises the question of what exactly we mean when we talk about the study of the Right. Are we thinking only of the narrative of the movement itself—its rise, its obstacles, its victories? Or are we thinking of the broader changes in American politics—a growing uncertainty about the potential of government, a greater faith in the free market, and a deepening sense of anxiety about collective action? If the latter, have historians approached the conservative shift in American politics in too partisan a way? After all, these political transformations may have reflected a great many different things—from the changes within the Democratic party to the growing influence of economic ideas in politics to the fall of the Soviet Union and the accompanying sense of the failure of state-run economies—that are not simply the result of the organizational victories of the Right. Are we interested primarily in the trajectory of the conservative movement itself? Or are the stakes larger, in which case looking solely at conservative institutions and ideas may not provide the answers that we seek?
The point is not to turn away from political history, to abandon the idea that something important changed in American politics circa 1980. It is, rather, to expand its boundaries—to find new ways to illuminate the dynamic between the self-aware creation of a conservative movement and the changing context within which it organized. The transnational turn in American historiography may be especially helpful in coming to a deeper sense of the specific role of the conservative movement in the recent history of American politics. The move away from welfare-state liberalism that took place in American politics happened in a similar way across much of the globe, and many countries saw the rise of far-right movements at about the same time as well. Looking at conservatism from an international perspective might mean analyzing the ways that the movement drew from intellectual and organizational sources outside the United States. It would involve looking more deeply at the connections between American conservatism and the conservative intellectual and political tradition in Europe throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It might mean examining the contributions that American conservatives made to right-wing movements elsewhere—for example, the connections between Reagan's America and Margaret Thatcher's Britain, or the influence of the Chicago School of Economics in Augusto Pinochet's Chile. It could also mean thinking about how conservative movements around the world were able to gain strength from the economic and cultural changes of the late twentieth century. Whether or not conservatives created the new politics of declining institutions, economic competition, and philosophical individualism, they certainly were able to benefit from it. What are the economic and political changes that opened up the space for the rise of conservative activists and the entrenchment of their political ideologies, not only in the United States but all over the globe?32
When Alan Brinkley wrote his 1994 essay, it might still have been possible for historians to minimize the significance of the conservative strain in American history, to overlook the “cultural chasms” that separated fundamentalist conservatives from secular society, and to believe that exposure to modernity naturally led to a more progressive, liberal politics. Taking conservatism seriously required an act of “historical imagination.” Today, despite the current travails and splits within the conservative movement, it is hard to imagine scholars holding this perspective with confidence. The idea that America is deeply divided politically and culturally is far more widely accepted, both inside and outside of the academy. The challenge for scholars of conservatism today is no longer to revive historical interest in the Right or to convince others of its importance. Rather, the real project is to see conservatism with a new perspective—to understand its tenacity through the liberal years, its longstanding relationship to the state and to economic elites, and how its history is intertwined with that of liberalism, as well as the ways its ascendance reflected not only its own political dynamism but also broader changes in American society.
Historical literature on American conservatism flourished during the first eight years of the twenty-first century, an era of conservative ascendancy that was impossible to ignore. As scholars were writing, the daily headlines made it easy to envision the relevance of their work. In a way, what we need now is the distance to think anew about the nature of conservative power in the twentieth century. This is the act that requires the real leap of historical imagination today.